More from the Blue Tour in Mexico

Just a few odds and ends from my recent trip to the Mexican states of Guerrero and Oaxaca to give talks and show the Blue Ocean Film Festival.

Areceli Oregon, the Mayor of Barra de Potos at our press conference opposing the placement of a FONATUR cruise ship terminal on top of the village and mangrove lagoon.

This is Julio, a sea turtle conservationist giving a talk to kids in Barra de Potosi about why it is important to conserve sea turtles and not eat their eggs.

This is in Zihuatanejo. Fishermen are mad about being displaced there. It is a lovely city--that has not kept pace in terms of managing its rapid growth.

I gave a talk in Saladita at Lourdes's Bungalows. From left to right: Irwin of Azulita, Kristy Murphy of Siren Surf Adventures, Lourdes, Pato of Azulita, me, Cat of Siren Surf Adventures, and Natalia of Costasalvaje.

We had over 200 people attend our event in Puerto Escondido.A great crowd.

That's me addressing the kids in Barra de la Cruz, a village in Oaxaca.

Maybe the most surreal moment of the trip to Zihuatanejo was going to visit Dr. Enrique Rodriguez, wildlife and animal rights activist and not realizing until I walked into his small office on the second floor of building just off the malecon that he was a small animal vet. He was of course in the middle of spaying a cat (which he does for free)
He offered to let me watch the operation, but I really didn't want to.
Just another surreal magical moment in Mexico.
Always expect the unexpected.

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Staying Safe in Baja

 In 2007, violent assaults and robberies experienced by American surfers and off-road enthusiasts in Baja California rocked the avid Baja travel community in Southern California.

That news combined with the very real violence and media coverage of the drug war in Mexico caused many Baja stalwarts to abandon their lifestyle dedicated to surfing, fishing, off-roading, diving, hiking and just plain enjoying one of the world’s most spectacular natural and cultural regions.

Thankfully, the Mexican government finally responded to the surge in incidents in Baja by increasing roadside patrols and strategically combatting and reducing narco violence.

Tourists are slowly returning to Baja again.

According to Mexico’s Tourism Secretariat, border tourism increased 9.4 percent this year compared to 2010.

As someone who works and plays in Baja California I can attest to the increased security and the fact that for the most part, the majority of the peninsula is as safe as ever.

That is especially true in Baja California Sur, which is considered one of the safest states in Mexico.

Interior of Misión San Francisco Javier de Vig...

San Javier Mission

Last year I took a 2,970-mile round-trip to the East Cape from San Diego with my two teenage sons.

We traveled down some of the peninsula’s most remote coastal dirt roads and encountered friendly locals, lots of smiles, great wave and cold cervezas.

WiLDCOAST, the organization I run, has an office in Ensenada. At any given time our staff can be found in some of the most remote corners of the peninsula or the most trash-infested colonias of Tijuana.

So far we have had no problems at all.

To get an update on the situation south of the border I checked in with some of Baja’s most knowledgable and experienced travel experts who spend lots of quality time visiting the nooks and crannies of our neighbor to the south.

Geoff Hill is the Vice President for Business Development for Baja Bound Insurance and a longtime Baja surfing and travel vet.

Susie Albin-Najera is the creator and editor of The MEXICO Report, MEXICO Travel Writers and is a Community Manager for the recently formed Mexico Today. She has been published in numerous publications including San Diego Magazine, Latin Style, Vallarta Tribune, Baja Traveler, and Baja Breeze.

Angie Mulder is the Program Director for Baja Discovery, an adventure and outdoor outfitter that specializes in natural history tours of Baja California. The company’s destination eco-camp in San Ignacio Lagoon, is one of the world’s premier locations for whalewatching.

Kimball Taylor is the author of Return by Water: Surf Stories and Adventures, a columnist for ESPN.go.com, and a former Senior Editor with Surfer Magazine. He has co-authored books on both Pipeline and Jeffrey’s Bay. He is a longtime Baja California travel vet with many miles of deep Baja surf trips under his worn out tires.

La Purisma foothills, Baja California Sur, Mexico

La Purisima

Patch: From your perspective has the safety/security situation in Baja improved?

Geoff Hill: I really don’t feel that Baja has a safety problem as much as it has a perception problem. Every year I drive an average of 5,000 miles all over the peninsula and always have positive experiences wherever I travel. Be respectful, use common sense and Baja will treat you well. It’s not the scary place the media has made it out to be. I always look forward to being down in Baja. I love the warmth and friendliness of the people that I interact with and the rugged beauty.

Susie Albin-Najera: Baja is an excellent destination for road travel, whether it’s visiting the border territories or heading further south. The real safety issues are just simple road conditions but the toll roads are safe and constantly being improved. I’ve always felt safe driving in Baja, but always encourage people to purchase insurance and take normal road trip precautions.

Baja California Desert in the Cataviña region,...

Central Desert

Angie Mulder: After our nearly three decades of travel in Baja, times have certainly changed, but applying the rules of safe travel has not. Whether exploring the peninsula with guests or pursuing our own adventures, we do not drive alone or at night, and don’t carry a lot of cash or take along expensive electronics. Just use basic common sense. We continue to run our natural history trips without incident.

Kimball Taylor: The safety issue is a tough call. Although instances of shocking violence have decreased in Tijuana and the Rosarito to Ensenada corridor, the discovery of a massive pot farm near El Marmol indicates serious narco activity in Baja.

Patch: If tourists have a problem on the road, what should they do and who should they call?

Hill: To start with, it’s a good idea to carry a Mexican insurance policy that includes roadside assistance and towing. That will give you direct contact to assistance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. HDI Seguros and ACE Seguros are the two Mexican insurance companies that Baja Bound works with and they both have English-speaking representatives that are ready to assist you. You can also dial 078 anywhere in Baja which is the Tourist Assistance Hotline provided by the Secretary of Tourism.

Albin-Najera: The Green Angels also provide 24/7 free roadside assistance to visitors with mechanical problems. Tijuana, Ensenada & El Hongo toll roads: 01-800-990-3900 Tijuana, Tecate toll roads: 1-800-888-0911

Taylor: By far the most dangerous aspect of travel in Baja is Highway 1 (the trans peninsular highway). Although the highway is being widened and improved in places, it is still just one slender ribbon of asphalt with little to no shoulder and dubious engineering. With the advent of Costco and Home Depot in Cabo San Lucas, commercial traffic and semi-trucks increasingly burden the road. I would advise to keep driving to daylight hours and to refrain from the nighttime blitz drives that were popular in earlier decades.

Patch: What destinations do you recommend visiting in Baja?

Hill: Some of my favorite memories are surfing at Scorpion Bay back in the early nineties when it was still relatively undeveloped. Tucked up in a pine forest at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet is the San Pedro Martir Observatory. They have three giant telescopes at the facility and tours are available every day starting at 10 am. The views are incredible, and on the right day you can actually see the Sea of Cortez to the east and Pacific Ocean to the west. I recommend this trip in the warmer months it can snow on the mountain during the winter. Erendira is a sleepy little farming and fishing village about four hours south of the border that has fun surf, nice spots to camp on the water, good fishing and is a beautiful area to relax and unwind.

Albin-Najera: Baja is a mecca of eco-adventure, marine life, dessert and natural beauty. There are so many ways to enjoy the Baja region. I’ve visited all of the regions in northern Baja and each area offers something special. I recommend visiting all of the areas, either on your own with a road map or via guided tour. You can have great experiences all around Baja. For example, some of the activities available are surfing, scuba diving, whale watching, fishing, cave exploration, off road riding, beaches, biking, art galleries, culinary festivals, brewery tours, world class golfing, and wine tasting. I recommend the Discover Baja California website to get an idea of all of the options. Even just driving along the coastline from Tijuana to Ensenada offers stunning ocean views.

A close-up of a Gray whale's double blow hole ...

Gray whale in Baja

Mulder: Our favorite Baja destinations include the rugged and beautiful desert in Cataviña and San Ignacio. In San Ignacio must sees are the Mission and cave painting museum, followed by dinner at Rene’s. And of course San Ignacio Lagoon, where we spend most of our time. The whales, people, flora and wildlife make it a very special place that keeps us coming back year after year.

San Ignacio Mission / Misión de San Ignacio, B...

San Ignacio Mission

Taylor: I recommend a visit to San Ignacio. The town and mission represent both the romance and reality of Baja. With the famous San Ignacio Lagoon and its gray whales nearby, the oasis is also a way station to San Juanico for those heading south and Punta Abreojos for those heading north.

Patch: What are your favorite places to dine?

Geoff Hill: I am a sucker for carne asada tacos. My favorite stands are Los Traileros in El Sauzal (just north of Ensenada) and Tacos El Yaqui in Rosarito. Tapanco in Rosarito is a great option for a steak dinner, and Rey Sol in Ensenada has a unique French-Mexican fusion that is amazing. If you have never been to the wine country just north of Ensenada you are really missing out! Most people have no idea that there are over 50 wineries producing some unbelievable wines that are just now starting to gain notoriety worldwide. The region is also producing some fantastic artisanal cheeses, jams and olive oil. Most of the wineries offer tours and wine tastings for about five dollars.

Albin-Najera: Tijuana has garnered a lot of positive media attention among foodies and food editors as the new gastronomic hot spot. I could be just as happy eating at a no-name food stall in Tijuana as in a fancy restaurant. As a chilaquiles connoisseur, I am partial to La Casa de Mole in Tijuana, and lobster, Puerto Nuevo-style. There are many new upscale restaurants in Tijuana though, that I’m eager to visit.

Angie: Outside of San Ignacio, we stop for chicken tacos at Quichules, the best beans ever.

Taylor: My favorite places to eat are the roadside taco stands in Ensenada, or just around the campfire.

A Great Day at the Dempsey

More than 150 surfers participated in the 8th Annual WiLDCOAST Dempsey Holder Ocean Festival and Surf Contest–the largest field ever for the Dempsey. The surf sort of cooperated with 2-4′ south swell peaks. Unfortunately it was a bit windy all day. But the competitors made the most of it.

Surfers from Mexico and Venezuela showed up to participate as well, making this truly an international surfing event thanks to a partnership with United Athletes of the Pacific Ocean (UAPO).

Thanks to all the Dempsey sponsors such as the County of San Diego, REI, Oakley, Billabong, Emerald City, Alan Cuniff, Pacific Realty, Pacifica Companies, URT, Cowabunga and all of the scholarship supporters and everyone who pitched in to make it “the best day ever!”

 

The Mexico Shark Fishing Moratorium Fiasco

Great white shark. Photo by Terry Goss, copyri...

White shark near Mexico's Isla Guadalupe.

In the early 1990s I spent a lot of time around shark fishermen and observing the slaughter of sharks in Baja California Sur. At that time, fishermen had moved over from  the Sea of Cortez where shark populations had collapsed, to focus on an intensive long-line and gill net fishery along the Pacific, concentrating on the offshore fishing grounds of Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio Lagoon, the Vizcaino Peninsula and finally the area north of Guerrero Negro (Los Cirios Coast). At that time rays were also fished intensively due to to the collapse of other fisheries.

Shark dump near La Bocana in BCS, Mexico.

Most of the shark meat and ray meat (used to make machaca) were considered second or third-class fish, which meant a lower price. For sharks obviously it was the trade in fins that drove fishermen to go out 20-60 miles from shore to set long-lines or gill nets. At that time I had not realized that this type of fishing activity was being carried out all over the world and was causing the collapse of shark populations.

I had not also realized the extent to which the obsession with shark fin soup in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China was driving the extinction of the ocean’s most feared, beautiful and interesting animals.

Shark fin soup

Shark fin soup.

WiLDCOAST has been working with Defenders of Wildlife-Mexico and Iemanya Oceanica to curtail the excessive shark fishery in Mexico and to educate the general public through media campaigns of the impact the shark fishery was having on Mexico’s ocean health.

When sharks unfortunately attacked and killed two surfers a few years ago just north of Zihuatanejo (and attacked another surfer who survived) we carried out a successful effort to stop a government sanctioned revenge shark slaughter.

We also worked with organizations like WildAid, Oceana, NRDC, Ocean Conservancy and Heal the Bay to advocate for the ban on the sale of shark fins in California. Our wrestling superhero El Hijo del Santo has been a tireless advocate for sharks and reached more than 30 million people through appearances on news and talk shows on the Telemundo networks to call for the California ban on shark fins.

Hammerhead in the La Bocana shark dump. In some areas, schools of hammerheads are caught in gill nets that also annually drown thousands of loggerhead sea turtles.

Since then we have attempted to work to have Mexico include endangered hammerheads on the CITES list. That effort was squashed by the Mexican government.

So last week, conservationists were surprised and happy to learn that Mexico had proposed a moratorium on fishing all species of sharks and rays. And from this story that appeared on the New York Times blog it seemed very clear that the moratorium would be real:

Mexico announced here plans yesterday to ban shark and stingray fishing starting next year, creating what would be the largest initiative by one nation to protect shark species.

The temporary moratorium is part of a burgeoning global movement against the trade of shark fins used as an ingredient in an Asian delicacy. Mexican authorities said they were inspired by the “shark sanctuary” declared two years ago by Pacific nation of Palau.

“Mexico wishes to share with the international community our intention to declare next year a moratorium on shark and stingray fishing,” said Yanerit Morgan, Mexico’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations on the side of a General Assembly meeting yesterday.

Joined by leaders of a small-island nations and other Latin American states, Morgan said the fishing ban would encompass Mexico’s territorial seas and expansive exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Pacific Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico.

The goal, she said, was to protect “pregnant female specimen and newborns of the main shark and stingray species.”

Morgan at the Mexican U.N. mission said her country’s decision to establish a moratorium is strictly a domestic initiative and not part of a regional North American or Latin American conservation effort.

“Our decision is a national policy,” Morgan said. “We hope that others can join us.”

Seemed pretty clear. Except it wasn’t. According to my inside sources in the Mexican government there was no plan to have a moratorium. The statement at the U.N. was a “mistake.” One source informed me that here was another proposal for a 3-month moratorium that they were confused about. Another source informed me that the proposal was actually real, but was only a foil in an attempt to pressure Mexican fishery officials (rabidly anti-conservation) to actually enact the 3-month moratorium.

Both sources assured me that a statement from the Mexican government clarifying the situation would be forthcoming.

It has been more than a week and no statement has been issued clarifying anything. Leading shark conservationists in the U.S. I spoke with continue to believe that Mexico is serious about conserving shark populations and the moratorium.

And this morning the New York Times, in an editorial, “A Growing Movement to Save Sharks”, lauded Mexico for its shark  and ray conservation initiative:

Last month, Mexico announced that it would ban shark and stingray fishing beginning next year. This would affect Mexico’s exclusive fishing zones in the Pacific Ocean and in the Gulf of Mexico. Several island nations — Micronesia, the Maldives, Palau, and the Marshall Islands — have already created shark sanctuaries. There is hope that Honduras and Colombia will follow suit, perhaps creating a protective corridor reaching to the Galapagos Islands.

So is the shark moratorium truth of fiction?

These types of policy “wars” in Mexico over proposals used to be carried out domestically in the state-run media. Different newspapers would publish policy proposals by competing factions in a government agency (the Mexican government under the PRI essentially bankrolled the press).

You would always know an article was a political message because it would appear without a byline with a very forceful and badly written statement about a very obscure policy. Another newspaper would carry the same type of article from a competing faction of technocrats calling for a different obscure policy.

Then the issue would vanish from the public spotlight.

What is unfortunate is that in the past, Mexico used to pass far-reaching conservation initiatives because it was worth the positive international media exposure it received–and then those plans would be implemented (to some degree).

Now let’s hope that the Calderon administration is not cynical enough to have carried out a policy war internationally and use the international press to argue over competing proposals–one of which-the year-long moratorium–the government never intended to ever happen.

That would be a shame for sharks and for ocean health.

Salina Cruz (Oaxaca) Surf Companies Protest Surfing Magazine Article

According to this post on ESPN by surf scribe Kimball Taylor, Salina Cruz surf companies are angry about a funny article about surfing in Oaxaca.

In an email dated September 22, Cesar Ramirez — a local surfer and a cornerstone of the surf tour business in Salina Cruz — asked flatly, “What was the guy who wrote the article thinking?”

The email went on to explain the delicate relationship forged by local surfers, businesses, tour guides, and the foreign surfers they hosted. It posited the rhetorical question of why the name of Salina Cruz hadn’t been spilled in such dramatic fashion before then. “Maybe for respect or friendship,” Ramirez answered. “All was good until today. Somebody with no balls to write his [own] name wrote the s—-iest article a surfer can write … Did it without respect and in the lowest form of professional ethics.”

The interesting aspect of this email, however, was that it carried weight:

“I hearby advise everyone that there has been a meeting between the local surfers in Salina Cruz including all the surf camps and as a result to this disgusting article … as of now, for 2 years foreign photographers and videographers are not welcome in Salina Cruz, doesn’t matter what surf team or what magazine they work for.”

Of the enforcement tools listed, the first was a legal one: an inspection of a photographer’s Mexican work visa — something few, if any, surf photographers obtain. The second tool was a bit more mercurial, depending on, “if we are in a good mood.”

Here is my comment on the ESPN site:

It is unfortunate that surf operators in Salina Cruz chose to proclaim a “fatwa” against international media coverage of surfing in southern Oaxaca. The irony of course is that it is the surf companies themselves that promote Salina Cruz as a destination through their websites that even include maps and site information.

Mexican tourism and surfing companies can’t have it both ways–they can’t complain about the unfair media coverage of violence in Mexico that has literally killed tourism and then threaten the only journalists and media companies who are promoting Mexico as a positive and beautiful place to visit.

I find it regrettable that these local operators would actually threaten physical violence against journalists which is a federal crime in Mexico. Few other countries direct as much violence against journalists as Mexico. This surfing “fatwa” is really a product of the unfortunate history of authoritarian rule and political culture in Mexico that has resulted in the deaths of many reporters.

The key issue in southern Oaxaca to remember, is that an indigenous community such as Barra de la Cruz has developed a very interesting and so-far positive tourism management plan that benefits the community rather than outside surf companies.

Other Chontal communities along the coast are following suit. It is important that visiting surfers respect the real locals on this coast–the historically marginalized and poverty stricken Chontal communities who view small-scale surfing tourism as a way to promote sustainable and community development and keep out Huatulco-style mega-projects.

What is lamentable is that local surf companies don’t see the real threat here–from Mexican agencies such as FONATUR that is continuing its ongoing campaign of destroying Mexico’s pristine coast to build mega-resorts that no one will come to.

Oaxaca Dreams 2011

Here is a video slideshow from our summer Oaxaca adventure. One of my best surf trips ever.

Los Tres Amgos Part II: Surfing in Mexico

My sons made this second video of their recent Mexico surfing adventures with their buddy Josh.

The Three Amigos Surf Video

My groms made this video in sloppy mid-morning surf in Oaxaca.

The Road to Barra

The road seemed endless. After ascending the highway along the 7,000-foot elevation pine-covered peaks that separates the valley of Oaxaca in south central Mexico from the Pacific Ocean, I expected a long but easy descent.

I was wrong.

Although we only had about 130 miles to reach the coastal resort town of Huatulco, we had another four hours of the windiest, curviest, scariest two-lane highway imaginable.

Members of Oaxaca’s diverse indigenous communities hiked along the highway that was lined with villages precariously perched among the pines along the steep cliffs.

Women in traditional garb balanced their heavy loads on their heads. Others carried machetes on their way home from work.

The drive was made worse by the simple fact that Darren Johnson and I had spent the previous night on a red-eye flight from Tijuana to Oaxaca. Joey Fallon dropped me and Darren’s families off at the Tijuana airport at 10 in the evening.

Israel and Daniel waiting to go through immigration at the TJ airport.

Our flight departed Tijuana at 2 a.m. and arrived in Oaxaca, considered one of Mexico’s most traditional and beautiful capital cities, at 8 a.m. After picking up our small rental cars, we made our way southwest to the Pacific.

Josh, 14, was the first to vomit. Darren notified us via walkie-talkie that he had to stop. After a stretch, I found a slight turnoff on the wrong side of the highway next to a tree-covered deep ravine and halted. Darren followed.

As soon as my sons Israel and Daniel exited our Chevy, Israel projectile vomited.

Everyone gets sick on the Oaxaca to Huatulco highway.

Three hours later, after descending from the pine trees into thick coastal rainforest, we found Huatulco. After purchasing supplies and groceries, we finally reached our destination for the next two weeks, a brightly covered beach house tucked away on a remote cove protected by rocky headlands on each side.

The point down the beach.

The surf was sideshore and about 4-5 feet. Daren, Josh and my two sons claimed the thumping beachbreak peaks in the middle of the cove. I walked down and made a stab at the hollow peaks breaking off the point.

We were all reminded of how the crunching power of the surf in southern Mexico.

The waves pitched quickly and unforgivably.

The next morning the boys woke at dawn to patrol the point, and eventually joined a group of groms from the nearby village.

Israel practiced his Spanish. The local groms were pleased to share hoots when someone inevitably scored a barrel.

When the wind turned offshore in the afternoon the surf picked up considerably and the boys enjoyed another round of hollow zippers.

The next morning it was even bigger. The boys were the first ones out, and I could see them pull into a few choice barrels as I walked down the beach.

The sets were overhead and powerful. I cautiously dropped in on a few shoulders.

The boys charged.

“Josh got a stand up barrel,” Israel yelled.

Darren, a goofy-foot, paddled out. Fit and trim at 45, Darren still surfs like a teenager.

As a set approached, I scrambled to get outside. I caught the biggest wave, managed to make the late drop, raced down the line, straightened out in the soup, then got hammered in the whitewater.

We all came in. It was time to hit Barra.

The groms at Barra.

Barra de la Cruz is considered one of the best places in the world for waves. A sand bottom point that winds down the beach in perfect cylinders, Barra is the subject of countless surf films and has even served as the location of a Rip Curl Pro Search surf contest.

These barrels have become a magnet for surfers worldwide.

A set at Barra.

After a short drive, I parked the car and the boys jumped out to check the surf.

The waves were perfect and the lineup was crowded. The boys grabbed their gear and raced down the beach eager to sample a few of the waves they day-dreamed about for years.

The long drive down the never-ending highway was worth it.

Me on a fun one.

Fighting Mega Projects in Guerrero

When we arrived in Zihuatanejo a few weeks,  we learned about plans by FONATUR, Mexico’s tourism development agency to build a new mega-tourism project on top of the Barra de Potosi mangrove wetland and coastal area. Here is the video of our press conference denouncing the project.

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